Thursday, December 29, 2016

Climb Every Mountain : Skyrim

Wine released another patch, and suddenly the copy of Skyrim I installed a while ago became playable (the joys of gaming on a Mac. Wine works pretty good for older games, though).

Skyrim is an open-world role-playing-game released in 2011. The setting is an iron-age fantasy culture in an epic, stark, chilly mountainous region. Bethesda delivers again on this one; like many of the best games, the setting is not just expansive, not just detailed, but it is flavored. There is a particular kind of harsh, hardy, pseudo-Norse theme going on here that goes well beyond just people wearing furs and horned helmets riding shaggy horses across high plains and tundra.

I found myself getting rather philosophical during it. Which hurt my gameplay a little, actually. If you've just attacked a bandit camp, you then end up walking through the small treasures of their hardscrabble existence. Rough tables and split log chairs and a little rabbit on the camp fire. A wooden flute, some hides tented up to keep the rain off. Not that the villagers have it much better, with simple dwellings and crude utensils.

When you talk to the villagers, you hear stories of their life choices and their philosophical take ending up a farmwife in a small town distant from her home city, or a merchant trying to make ends meet. And the evidence of industry -- the simple blacksmithing setups, the hunting camps, even crude mining operations -- show a similar "getting along at the life you have" attitude among the bandits. Even the giants, although easily spooked, are content to stand peacefully among their herds of mammoth.

One always puts a little of oneself into a game. Even the simplest game still leaves a space for the player to read personality and backstory where perhaps it isn't there. In the case of two runs I made at Skyrim (with two different characters to try out different career paths), what I got out of the game was as much driven by chance and glitch.

It really started with my housecarl, Lydia, who the Jarl sent to me after making me a thane (kill one little dragon, and they just won't shut up about it). Anyhow, the voice acting of this character made her sound very sad and resigned when I told her to stay in the house while I adventured. And I had to sympathize. After all, this is a warrior in a warrior culture. It wasn't exactly that she wanted excitement, it was that in her mind the only proper way to live was to die in battle.

So I brought her along despite misgivings (misgivings because artificial intelligence is not exactly there yet. The AI's tend to run in front of your bow in the thick of combat. (When they aren't standing in the middle of a doorway you are trying to pass through, giving you a blank "can I help you?" stare.)

And I got suckered into helping a goddess clean her temple of an infestation of undead magic-users. A very pushy goddess. With all those spells flying about I really had to work at it to keep Lydia from running herself killed (although to her credit, the enemy AI in Skyrim is very bow-aware and does not make it easy for you to snipe them from cover).

But we won. And a cutscene was forced on me where the goddess "thanks" me (pushy goddess, did I mention?) and then dumps me unceremoniously outside the temple. And Lydia glitched. She was alive last I saw her, but she never left the temple. In my head canon, my warrior woman, servant and friend had found the destiny she was seeking. But that damn goddess better be treating her right!

I'd become intrigued with the crafting system. This is an exceptionally deep game, with almost too many stories to explore and multiple play styles are possible. Within crafting, you can do Alchemy (which is basically herbalism; you gather ingredients from the wild as you travel, then experiment with mixing them together until you find recipes that work). You can do Enchanting, which is intriguingly different and not a little disturbing.

Magical items in the Skyrim world are driven by captured souls. With a bit of training you can do this yourself; absorb the soul of a recently slain wolf, say, then use it to power up a flaming dagger that you can then hand off to anyone (or, more usually, sell). The actual enchantments are, in the game, entirely arrived at by reverse engineering; you find another flaming artifact and rip it apart to see how it was done.

The third crafting system is Smithing, with encompasses basic leather work and jewelry as well. This is nicely if sketchily illustrated with various simple forges and smelters and grindstone and anvils and so on, complete with animations as your character takes an item through the various processes.

You can in fact mine iron ore, smelt iron (or with a slightly different process make steel), hammer it into a sword, and rework the sword to be finer. This being Iron Age tech, you also need to take a hide (which could even be a pelt from the wolf mentioned above) turn it into leather, and cut it into strips to wind about the hilt.

The weird part, though, is that this is not value-added. It is a little hard to see the numbers clearly because in the early game merchants pay 30% book value on goods and mark them up 300% to sell. But basically, a sword is worth less than the processed materials that went into it. And if you are buying the raw ores from a merchant instead of mining them yourself, you basically lose money on the deal.

So basically you need external funds. And you don't learn enchantments (to really value-add the items you are smithing) unless you have magical loot to tear apart. All in all, it is extremely difficult to just sit around learning crafting. You progress vastly faster if you adventure.

So the first character I played was an Argonian. A lizard-man from far away. Who I played as so completely outside he had no idea what anyone was talking about, had no interest in the politics, and in any case couldn't tell the faces of all these humans apart anyhow. Or remember their weirdo names. I eventually ended up playing him as a sort of linebacker/scholar; on the one side, the first weapon he picked up was a two-handed axe and there wasn't a lot he couldn't deal with just by bull-rushing it and swinging away. But on the other side, he really, really loved books (that's why I bought a house; the books were getting too heavy to keep hauling around.)

This is actually common among Skyrim players, I found. A web search for "Bigger bookshelves in Skyrim" turned up easily dozens of threads on the subject.

My second was also outsider to the local politics. I made her as small as the sliders would let me go, and wanted her to be geeky determined to become the greatest smith ever. Except the game throws you into combat in the introductory scene, and pretty much forces you to get involved with a dragon.

Even the mining is complicated by the fact that there are bandits living in the mine you want to use (and wolves on the path). However, unlike many RPGs, Skyrim does not have a stat system. Whether you are a buff lizard or a slender Breton you kick ass exactly the same. And I had learned a little something about the magic system since my Argonian and at Easy settings beginning-character magic is insanely overpowered.

(There is also no class system in Skyrim. Anyone can learn anything. Most characters, NPCs as well, know a little about magic and fighting and crafting and, well, everything else.)

The problem I ran into with Moly the tiny Breton blacksmith, though, was that I'd installed the Hearthfire DLC (additional content for the game). Which allows you to customize the houses you buy. And expands a little on the craft-able items. And, oh yes, adds a few orphans. And I thought Lydia made me feel bad! No, now there was this sweet little child following me about whenever I visited town, and...

Turned out crafting was just too darned slow. I couldn't stand little Breccia (or whatever her name was) being out in the cold even one more night, so I picked up the best sword I'd made so far and struck out towards the most dangerous haunted barrows and troll-infested mountain peaks I knew about this early in the game.

Turns out I couldn't take in the poor kid without owning a house. And I had to have it furnished, too. On the second or third trip back to pay out yet more of the loot I was risking my neck for up on the mountains, and fulfill yet more obligation, I started to feel like I was dealing with Children's Services.

But I finally managed it. Took Lydia (Lydia2 if you are counting -- different me, but same game story, same dragon, and same overly-generous local Jarl) up the side of the mountain* to visit the monks for one last adventure to tell the kids. And closed the game -- at least for this four day weekend -- sitting in contented silence by the fire in my rustic home, watching the little girl play with her new doll.

*Yes, that is literal. Borrowed a couple of horses from the Stormguard. Skyrim horses do not give a fuck. Physics is their plaything. This is pretty much a glitch they kept because all the players loved it, like the fact that one square hit from a Giant's club will send you thousands of feet into the sky. People have been killed by meteorite-mammoths. The horses will ride up anything that isn't vertical. And make a pretty good attempt at that, too.

Thing is, I could never find the damned road up to where the monks were. So the well-honored alternative among Skyrim players is to find Comet the Wonder Horse and point her towards the cliff face.

Friday, December 23, 2016

10,000 Fleece

I've made the first major error on a PCB. The drill holes are too small for the LEDs. I can ream them out easily enough, but I'm using the through plating as a via in several places. With luck I can solder top and bottom and restore connection...but that also emphasizes that I completely forgot I was going to increase the size of the annular ring on several of the pads, too.

Ah, well. It is going to take weeks to laser-cut enough Holocron kits to even use up the first set of PCBs. The lasers are booked nearly solid, and even on top of it being cold and dark and often raining when work ends I've been feeling sickly and not up for the trip to the shop anyhow. And besides, I have enough parts to build one full production model, so I'm doing that first (in case I discover something new that needs to be adjusted).

And as for the boards? The v1.1 revision was just a stop-gap, mostly improving the silkscreen and adding a resistor to the resistor ladder. The next revision I suspect strongly I'm going to go for a "larger" CPU chip (but do it in surface mount instead of DIP). I'm also tempted in the direction of taking off the USB socket and replacing it with a microSD socket. Except the controller chip for above is a thirty-six pin SMD that can't be hand-soldered -- that's a big jump up in my SMD skills.

Made a breakthrough on the fiddle. Apparently the beginner is supposed to play detaché, separating each note. I've been practicing legato since the beginning.

Well, immediately on hearing that I tried putting a slight pause in the bow between notes. Wow. All that struggle to get clean string crossings in a slur has really paid off. With that little pause it is downright simple. Oh, and I can dial the pause down to barely perceptible and still get the benefit.

Similar really to my fun with shoulder rests. It was far too hard to handle the violin at first. Shoulder rest allowed me to progress. A better shoulder rest allowed me to move to the next stage. But now that I'm so much more comfortable moving about the fingerboard and keeping the violin balanced, I can omit the shoulder rest and play nearly as well.

So now I throw in a "naked" practice session at intervals. No shoulder rest, no Snark tuner; just ears and meat (and a thick shirt...yes, it can hurt without that padded rest!) So I can get through Hava Nagila without stumbling...but I still have squeaks and some other finger noise to clean up (and my intonation will continue to need work. Especially as the string crossings are just horrible in the C part and I've been playing that in third position as an alternative).

Trying my first audiobook now; listening to a free reading of the Anabasis I found online. Which means I'm avoiding spoilers for a work that came out 2,300 years ago.

Also read a couple more Kindle books. Both were oddly alike in having a very breezy tone; short sentences, short paragraphs, simple construction. Also both alike in having fairly poor description. One is (more or less) in first person and eschews scene breaks or other real organization, letting changes of space or time roll right past, moving in and out of dialog or action without pause or even change of pace.

The other at least has some of that helpful organization, but uses the increasingly rare third-person omniscient. Which I think is a horrendously poor choice, but could perhaps be excused or at least explained as a larger choice that may not be that of the authors.

To explain; this is a Tomb Raider book -- a proper printed book for all that I read it on Kindle -- and it features the 2013 "reboot" Lara Croft and is explicitly set immediately following the events of the 2013 game.

This game is basically subtitled "Birth of a Survivor." It takes Lara as a young, inexperienced student on her first serious expedition, and drops her into a hellscape where she is beaten down to her essence; becoming both dogged survivor and (as necessary) brutal killer.

Which means any work featuring her, and particularly one that pretends to follow the events of the game, should be about her struggle to return to the normal world and come to terms with what she was forced to do. And indeed, the book -- The Ten Thousand Immortals -- shows her having panic attacks and flashbacks and struggling to re-define her belief system after being confronted with the reality of nigh-immortal weather-controlling undead queens on the haunted island of Yamatai.

This can be done in third person omniscient. It is just in my opinion much harder to do it right. Because what matters to the reader is not the clinical dissection of Lara's inner life. It is not the unwrapping of the complexities of a psyche in the way of Joyce's Ulysses. What the reader wants is to feel along with Lara. To be invited in, to even experience this vicariously -- the way the game allows you to do. Third person limited, or first person, are better narrative choices.

(Something which even one of the game development team seems to have misunderstood. But never mind about that now!)

And this is even a good point from a mechanistic story-telling direction. Much of the story has Lara possibly being followed, not sure who to trust, wondering if she is surrounded by enemies or if she is merely letting her post-traumatic stress drive her to unwarranted paranoia. This confusion on her part is completely undercut by an omniscient point of view that at any moment can and does cut to the very person who actually is following her, and listen to their interior monologue about exactly why they are following her and who they work for and what the whole mystery is about.

A more limited perspective is perfect here. Seeing only what Lara sees is a better mechanical way to present the mystery and suspense of who to trust and when to be wary (as well as being a vastly superior way to let you empathize with her situation emotionally). This shades all the way down to the small tricks; a detached omniscient observer makes Lara look foolish in those rare moments when she lets her guard down. Seeing the scene through her POV, the narrative can subtly guide both where you are allowed to look and how you feel about what you see; presenting open, clear vistas or presenting menacing shadows, and make her reactions feel justified and rational to the reader.

So the escape hatch I alluded to earlier is this; perhaps the authors were asked to provide an adventure, told not to actually develop her character any because all that would be in the games, and basically were led into presenting the bones of a story without most of what allows for proper emotional involvement. It is Saturday Morning Cartoon stuff; lots of running around and shooting and that all sounds exciting on paper but there is so little tangible about any of it -- especially the inner life of the people involved -- it is not terribly thrilling.

But there is more here. One of the two authors involved has a more recent book featuring the "Classic" Lara Croft. And three paragraphs in he threw me right out of the story by featuring a "20mm steel-kern climbing rope."

Okay, sure, the movies (and many books) will always get the details wrong of that thing you yourself are expert in. And maybe the non-expert will never even notice, although to someone who knows anything about climbing, that description is ridiculous as specifying a "Diesel powered laptop computer with a 74" screen."

But no. It takes less than a minute to do better than that. This story was written within the last few years and yes Google and Wikipedia were available. Heck; Lara Croft is using both constantly within the story itself! If the author did enough research to find out what kernmantle construction is, then he damned well would have learned the difference between static and dynamic, and as well been presented with examples of appropriate diameters.

Even going from first principles, a basic understanding of the physical universe would clue you in that something was off. As my friend put it, Lara Croft must be tough stuff if she nonchalantly ties a knot in a half-inch steel cable.

(And, no, you can't get out of this one by assuming a typo on the number. Because pretty much every single other detail about this rope and how it is used is wrong.)

In any case, 10,000 Immortals (the previous book and the one under discussion) doesn't make quite such obvious errors. The archaeology is terribly simplistic, and I think that too is a mistake. The games may not give that much detail, but there's good indication there's a contingent of the audience that does want to see more. What bugs me, though, is the ways the book looks like it is getting wrong things that people with even a smattering of a classical education will already see are wrong.

The title is one. It is referring to the Persian Immortals. Sort of. It is about half-way through the book that it becomes clear there is a group that calls themselves "the ten thousand immortals" and has based the name on the so-called "Immortals" of Persepolis et al. And the book correctly at that point explains the legend that there were 10,000 of these elite soldiers, exactly; as one died, another would be sworn in to take his place.

Except that this is another one of those many, many places where Herodotus...well, you know the drill. And even the name is quite possibly a mistaken translation. So the book jars once in that Lara doesn't seem to know who the Immortals are (despite apparently having that good Classics education) and that makes her look like an idiot. And the book doesn't correct her at first, making it look like an idiot. Only eventually does the truth out, finally making the title seem less awkward -- but it does this a few chapters in and never moves past that "revelation" that is probably within the first hour on Persia in your History of the Ancient World 101 class. (And what is especially ridiculous is that at some point the writer provides the name "Anûšiya." So he almost certainly knew and was choosing to either ignore or withhold the more complex real story.)

The Golden Fleece is an even better case, reeling out the bit about gold-panning with sheep wool about five chapters in, but never moving a step beyond that not particularly obscure revelation. This book has either a frightfully low opinion of its audience, or is written by someone a lot less educated than he thinks he is. One keeps hoping there will be something about the Argonauts that goes beyond what appeared in the Harryhausen film. In vain. The story actually moves the Aegean and an archaeological expedition and a rock-cut cliff dwelling and reveals -- damn-all. Again, what little is revealed on the subject happens less than half of the way in. The rest of the book spins out chases and shootout with nary a new bit of historical information or archaeological clue from then on out.

I am tempted to blame the usual process of "Decide on the plot first, then pick and chose the historic and/or scientific details that support it." There is also some hair-thin evidence that the bad-guy group are the ones who are making the stupid errors; that they are essentially Foucalt's Pendulum-ing themselves. There's a bit of business, for instance, with a derringer that is claimed to be but is as likely not to be the one used by John Wilkes Booth. (A derringer which is never fired, despite being on that damned mantlepiece at least twice). So one can half believe the bad guys were meant to be idiots who didn't understand who the Persian Immortals really were, or know anything more than a teenager (and from the evidence, a poor student at that) does about Jason and the Golden Fleece.

There's another oddity there. The reviews on Amazon fall into two categories; long, carefully written reviews that lay out in detail the literary offenses, or one-word reviews with five stars. The suspicious take here is the latter are spammed to drive the rating up. A different view, though, is potentially illuminating. Maybe the breezy, error-filled, childishly simplistic writing is all these particular reviewers needed or even wanted. The ones that have a word or two other than "Amazing!" talk only about how cool it is to have the character from the games be in a book. It would be informative to introduce these reviewers to something like the deeply psychological fanfic "Easier to Run" and see if that opens their eyes to how much more a story can offer.

A few words now on the other Kindle find. I've now read the first and second books of the "Athena Lee" chronicles and I doubt I will read any others. The premise is promising; a young woman is marooned amid the wreckage of a space battle that went well for nobody. Her thing, however, is engineering. Survive until rescue? Deal with the changes in politics back home, threats on her life, pirate attacks, treason..? Whatever it is, she's got a spanner and a slide rule and she's going to engineer the heck out of it.

The character has an engaging voice and what can be seen of her personality is amusing. There are some cute touches elsewhere (although a little 1990's pop culture goes a long way). The problem is, the author doesn't seem to know how to describe engineering. Actually, the author doesn't seem to know how to describe anything. Well, actually -- the author doesn't seem to have much of a grasp of how to write. I read a free excerpt from Book 8 and he seems to be just starting to learn how to handle POV changes and exposition.

These books, too, have many short (as few as one or two word) reviews praising them highly. Again I have to wonder if someone is gaming Amazon's rating systems. But the unsettling and more likely answer is that there are people who have read so few books they have yet to discover that they get a hell of a lot better than this.

Like the Tomb Raider story above, it should not be enough that a character you like is on the page. Or that people are shooting at stuff and so it must be exciting. Those can be, should, usually are a given in a piece of genre fiction, but said piece is also generally expected to bring a minimum standard of craftsmanship with it. To leave one with a sense of place, to portray characters well enough one can speak of them as if you had met them in person, to immerse the reader in the experience and smoothly and seamlessly carry them through transitions and exposition and all the other necessary stage machinery of an unfolding plot.

Ten Thousand Immortals is a madeleine offered in excuse of a full meal. The Forgotten Engineer is a handful of granulated sugar offered in excuse of actual food.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Game Levels

Just reviewed the chapters to date of my Tomb Raider/SG1 fanfic. Funny how much it looks like it was planned, even though I know I'm pretty much writing it as I go along.

I started with a McGuffin; a small jar in the shape of a falcon. About all I knew was that it was connected to the ancient Egyptian god Horus. Next I needed a setting for the opening scene. The yacht from the third game, of course. Put it in some nice waters for skin-diving; where? How about near Malta.

I literally had not made the connection until I was writing the first scene set in Valetta and thought of tying the Tribute of the Falcon -- yes, the Black Bird itself, the Maltese Falcon -- to the story. Similarly, I had already passed through Libya before silphium became an important plot point. It wasn't until doing research eight chapters later I realized silphium, that wonder drug of the ancient world, had only grown in a narrow strip of coast near Tripoli. And these were not the only bits of serendipity (it helps, of course, that I cast my net very wide in the first place, including putting lots of random trivia in each passing chapter that I might later profitably mine).

The main place where the lack of planning shows up is that the evil scheme the protagonists eventually discover isn't that interesting, and doesn't lend itself to a satisfying resolution. But, then, similar could be said of the plots underlying many of the games. Where things worked out in a surprising way is how close I came to the game framework of go to an exotic locale, pick up a clue amid the archaeology and/or history there, and have a bit of action (a fight, some climbing) before moving on.

The first "Level" is essentially Malta. Surprising this location hasn't been used in Tomb Raider before. It is close to the center of a number of the historical events around the Mediterranean and is littered with the archaeology of Romans, Byzantines, Turks, etc., etc. For my story I concentrated mostly on the period when the Knights of Malta were in conflict with the Ottoman Empire in a multi-nation struggle for supremacy in the Mediterranean that came to a climax at the Battle of Lepanto (not coincidentally the last major naval battle conducted between rowed galleys).

The "action" for this level, however, takes place in a flashback, in which a teenaged Lara climbs up and BASE jumps off the pyramid-shaped Transamerica building in downtown San Francisco.

The next level is Cairo, and this one is almost complete; for archaeological puzzles there is the mysterious object dug up in Giza in 1928 and spirited away to America before the Second World War, and mysteries surrounding a newly-discovered Amarna-period tomb in the Valley of Kings (the real-world KV63). There's a brief tomb crawl with a bit of life-or-death gymnastics, and a knife fight with some thugs on the outskirts of "Garbage City," the grass-roots recycling center in the heart of Cairo's slums.

Outside of fulfilling the basic game objectives (the sprawling, semi-abandoned munitions plant in the desert would of course have made a great map in an actual game) this sequence also fulfilled some more literary requirements. I got to talk a little about the long history of Egypt and current sociopolitics, and as well explore a little more of Lara's psychology and her ongoing inner struggles. (It also took me much deeper into the rabbit hole of research, including staring at old sales brochures trying to identify exactly which guitar donated by the Red Hot Chili Peppers hung on the wall of Hard Rock Cafe Cairo).

The following level is on the face of it less exotic; Colorado Springs. I touched a little on the gilded age and silver barons, and the natural history of the area, but this is largely about NORAD. There are excursions to another bit of Cold War history, the Strangelovian "Project Pluto," and to the tiny idiosyncratic would-be island nation of Sealand, as well as passing mention of Semipalatinsk, Tsar Bomba, Bluegill Prime et al, but the star is NORAD, that underground city behind giant blast doors. The action in this level is a long climb in very much the style of the games.

As for literary purposes, I am most happy with a little scene that came out of thin air. I wanted a little excitement before Lara went into the mountain, and I threw some local punks at her. And then in the middle of writing the scene discovered the unexpected and comedic resolution.

The level I'm most proud of is Prague. I feel like I almost had a good grip on the whole mix here; the mystery and McGuffin, the historical background, the scene-setting, the Tomb Raider style action. It also accomplishes the "layers" which is part of my favorite levels in the various games. In this case the team visits modern-day Prague (with some short side conversations about occupations of World War II and the following Communist take-over), goes into the Gormenghastian Prague Castle, then has to struggle past booby-trapped passages left by the SS to get to where secrets of alchemists and seers were hidden, at last solving a 17th-century puzzle...and encountering the Golem of Prague in a neolithic cave.

In almost all of the games Lara's home is an optional level. So I sent some of my cast there to explore the Abingdon Estate, wrapping that sequence up with a big fight. The archaeological revelations, if you could call it that, is expressed in a long bull session concentrating mostly on the period of transition between Egyptian pre-history and the first recorded dynasties. Side lines included various and sundry artifacts on display in the manor, with passing mention of events as varied as Gallipoli and the Siege of the Legations.

The next "level" is essentially the American Southwest, focusing on pre-Columbian archaeology, but with a secondary emphasis on particular bits of 1950's ephemera; Roswell and the "Gray" aliens, Route 66 with the usual roadside attractions of giant lumberjack statues, and Trinity with the first atomic bomb. So far the big discovery has been a paleolithic site in New Mexico, and the action has been a little run-in with a heavily jimmied solar power facility.

And from the looks of it, I'm going to conclude at Mount Shasta, bringing in as archaeology mostly clearly false nonsense about Atlantis and Mu and the Shaver Mysteries, but also tying in an ancient alien engineering project that had been the background threat of a stand-alone sequence I did on Thera during the height of the Minoan civilization.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Through the Night with the Light from a Holocron

Power was out for most of a rainy saturday. I turned on every holocron-under-construction I had for a little bit of light and practiced fiddle, recorder and ukulele in the dark.

(A blinking holocon not exactly a good reading lamp. Funny. I had all these parts lying around, but no power for my soldering iron, and -- once my laptop battery died -- I couldn't reprogram any of the things I had, either.)

A weird feeling, really. Power was out over a fifty mile radius, and it was raining hard to boot; so not much use going outside to find somewhere with more light. My heat is also electric, but...gas still worked, water still worked, so I could still drink fresh water or make tea or even run a shower.

In the evening went to a low-key dinner, watched a short play, and danced the hovah (another first for me). So all in all a weird day, but a nice one.

For some reason really needed the weekend this time. Worked as long as I could on the holocron software and the new animation is mostly solved. Enough is still left to do it seems to make sense to prioritize software over cutting new kits, assembling new shells, or soldering up the last of the version 1.0 boards (the v. 1.1's should be showing up by next weekend).

At least work has changed plans again. I can take a string of days off around Christmas. Pity, though; I'd love to ship holocrons before that date.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Two out of three?

Felt great today. Meant to finish up early, get to the gym, do laundry and finish the new talk animation.

Work took longer than I'd hoped. Gym was crowded and I didn't stay long. Laundry happened. Made a stab at the software. Practiced fiddle for nearly an hour instead.

I'd say I'd passed another milestone. I'm still mostly in first position and my intonation still sucks, but I'm now comfortable with just swinging it onto my shoulder and trying out a tune. String crossings are no longer a nightmare, nor is shifting. Not saying they are easy, or smooth, but I can do them.

As a perhaps measure of my growing comfort with the instrument, the evening part of today's practice was without tuner, shoulder rest, or light (that is, I wasn't spending the time looking at my fingers or the bow.) I am still more comfortable with the shoulder rest, but I can do pretty much everything without it. Even work on getting to a proper vibrato.

On the software, less obvious progress. There's about three things left before I can ship Holocrons, and making a better animation that plays when the user triggers the sensor is one of them. What I'm trying is the particular look of a light that is being driven by an actor's voice.

My first approach was just a sequence of up and down fades, with spaces between them. The fades are at different speeds to simulate hard and soft consonants. This fails because we speak in words; in groups of syllables. The next attempt organized the fades into one to five "syllable" groups, with short "word" gaps between them. Better, but still not right. See, most speakers have a cadence. The cadence however follows the phonemes (exceptions include long vowels). So regardless of whether the leading sound is "soft" or "hard" (rises quickly or slowly to the peak energy) the total dwell time of the vowel should be similar.

Oh, and I thought of another wrinkle I want to add. The default "pulse" animation ignores the fact that the four LEDs are individually addressable. But if I randomize the peak levels between the LEDs during the "talk" animation, the lighting will seem to flicker or dance from side to side.

That only requires writing a whole new function to display the final result of all the other calculations. Minor stuff. (The pulse animation is now redone with variables for color center and overall brightness; these are read from EEPROM on boot time so, eventually, I can write some routines to let the end-user modify those values and have them stored in non-volatile memory.)

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Fight like a Krogan, run like a leopard

There must be something in the air. Everyone was on edge at work. I got caught in the middle of a three-way fight (between three people who outrank me). Had to fumble my way through lots and lots of "minefield" conversations (where one person is trying to shift the blame on to either you or a third person who isn't in the room at the time, and you have to try to defuse them without giving them what they wanted to hear). And then one of my buddies just discovered he has to work late starting today -- he didn't even get warning he wasn't going to be able to go home -- and I needed to talk him down a little.

I am talked out. All this carefully, carefully selecting conversational options to try to avoid an explosion happening made me feel like I was Commander Shepard. Only, without the rank and responsibility (most of this craziness is happening with people who are my supervisors).

Um, yeah...I have been playing a bit of Mass Effect lately. Was sick and cold all weekend and outside of 3-4 hours of programming I was good for nothing else.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

It's a Very Silly Universe

I'm looking forward to finishing up my Tomb Raider/SG1 fanfic. Because both properties are really rather silly, when you look deep into them. The Stargate universe has trouble working even by its own internal rules. It fails dramatically to work within practically anything that we know of the real world. The Tomb Raider franchise gets off a little easier, but perhaps only because it says so very much less.

I just got two more Holocron orders, and I've been tinkering on a "talking" Holocron, and the question has arisen what the heck those things are and why they exist in the Star Wars (no longer Extended) universe. Which is also a very silly universe.

I do like one thing about that universe, though. And that is that it has a sadly believable history. From all that was said in the first, original Star Wars (now "A New Hope"), all was peace and light under the benevolent leadership of the Republic for untold years. Then the Empire came in...creeping in through what one imagines were years of slippery slopes and questionable decisions and the inevitable decay of all empires -- one gets the impression that Lucas had been reading a bit of Spengler along with his Campbell. The Empire is all Luke knows, suggesting it has been around for long enough to Winston Smith records and memories alike, but it doesn't last much longer than it takes for Luke's voice to change. 

In the various extensions, whether the Triumph of the Will of Darth Emo's buddies in the latest movie, or any of the Sith and Mandalorians and so forth in the various and sundry games, animated movies, and whatever, a much different shape arises. The timescales may be ridiculously long, but the overall shape of the galaxy is war after war. One culture, one philosophy, rising for a time, then being overthrown by another. Endlessly, until wreckage litters thousands of planets and thousands of legends are spread among the stars. It lives up to its title, then. 

Because that is the shape of history as I see it. If one focuses in on, say, Rome, one sees the rise of a nation and experiences its power and accomplishments. One even views the world through the map of its territories, a globe centered on the Greenwich of that particular empire.

Take a broader view, though, and every state falls again, is conquered or subsumed. It becomes instead endless waves, an ebb and flow with one empire rising to prominence for a while every now and then until the pattern falls back into chaos (often, it seems, stirred into new upheavals by the latest product of the mysterious Nomad Factory).

And this is what movies like "The Force Awakens" seems to show of us these Stars at War. For all the ridiculous science and inconsistent technology and B-movie antics, this, at least, rings true.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016


I can stumble through a tune now on the fiddle.

I take it to work with me. I don't always get the two scheduled breaks, I can't always practice on those breaks (sometimes I need to use the time to make a call or have a snack or something), but I still average fifteen minutes of practice every day.

Not a lot. But that's every weekday, plus I pick it up at least once on the weekend. And it adds up, bit by bit. Eventually even Diamond Mountain gets ground down.

Now all I need is more things with a good Bird Quotient. Unfortunately programming and writing don't make it. Fifteen minutes isn't even enough to figure out where you left off.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Stark Envy

There is a lot to envy about Tony Stark. But what I mean in this case...well, several scenes (in the first movie especially) sum this up well. He's in his man cave, elbow-deep in the high-tech equivalent of grease. He's unshaven, he hasn't eaten, he's pretty much only keeping himself going on beer and hard rock.

But he's still going. He's thinking, he's innovating, he's building.

I can get about four hours at a stretch. Maybe six hours total in any given day. The rest of the day I'm spinning my wheels. I can stare at the screen or sketchpad, shove my nose into the books...doesn't matter. That four to six hours is all that I have available to actually, creatively, problem-solve.

Last night I got hauled off to an unexpected rehearsal. Before it started and between acts I worked on the misbehaving Holocron software. It took me something like an hour of actual hands-on-keyboard to see where I'd screwed it up this time.

There's a flag that sets the pulse direction, up or down. Two blocks that test for flag condition then execute various things (mostly, setting a new target value for the LEDs, either max bright or min bright). Oh, yeah. And when everything else is done they flip the flag.

Except I was getting worried about undefined behavior in some of my "if/else" loops. So I switched out the "else" block for an implicitly defined "if" block.

Strip out everything else, all the interior loops and tests and function calls. What did I just create?

if (toggle == 1)
toggle = 0;
if (toggle == 0)
toggle = 1;

Yes; in this case, "if/else" was a better logical construct, exactly because the "else" statement isn't evaluated. It doesn't run unless the conditions to run the "if" statement are false.

And that's the sort of stupid error I'm trying to fix in my Holocron software. Because most of that work has not happened in those four golden hours, but during time when I'm struggling to try to concentrate at all.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Ozzie who?

A quiet Sunday morning. Will be meeting friends for brunch in a few hours. I put on some coffee, grabbed the apple turnover I purchased on impulse yesterday at the bakery cafe across the street, and flipped a Wes Mongomery CD from my binder of random jacketless CD's into the player a neighbor gave me when she moved.

And...perfect. Sunlight is breaking through the overcast, there's just the slightest nip of fall in the air, and I've got the day off to relax. I'm happy.

This is what we give thanks for. These moments of grace. It is never the life you expected, certainly not the life you planned, but it is the life you have and, all in all, it isn't bad.

I've been lucky enough to travel a little, and there are certainly those moments of awe and those moments of connection with the rest of humanity. I've spent much of my working life in live theater and have had the experience of being part of creating those moments when the emotions and the lighting and everything comes together and time stands still at the cusp of that final chord. But I am especially thankful that I have family and friends, and as wonderful as the times of lively debate are those moments of quiet comfort when everything that really needed to be said is already said.

Rich or poor, sickly or robust, farmer or philosopher-king, eventually we are all Ozymandias, the legacy of our life but a pair of broken and confounding feet. So treasure those moments of grace. And it is not a bad thing, either, to live your life in a way that allows them to happen to others. Share kindness, and friendship, and love. Share music and art. Know that in the simplest act of boarding a bus or serving a cup of coffee you may be part of some other person's perfect moment. Take pleasure in the pleasure of others because, that, too, is a moment of grace.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Whadaya mean, "too sensitive?"

Monday I did a long workday, went to the gym, worked on the Holocron, went out for dinner, and still had time for a few minutes of fiddle practice.

Tuesday I was sore, nor did it help that I had to climb the walls of the theater (pretty much literally, using rock-climbing moves up the unistrut to get to the things I needed to adjust). But still got the Holocron work and the fiddle practice in.

But I am so glad Wednesday was a short day and the next four days are off work.

I needed to dial in the sensitivity on the touch sensor before I moved on to the last parts of the software. And that took four days. And the solution is a software cludge. 

The theory is simple. Let current leak through a high-value resistor into the parasitic capacitance around an input pin and associated antenna until it charges and trips the pin. Measure the time; that's the total capacitance. 

A human body in contact with, or even close to, the circuit changes that time and you can thus detect it. I can get the circuit to detect a hand moving six inches away.

But not in a stable way. The values fluctuate too much, including the sensitivity climbing up steadily over time. The touch I'm looking for is getting lost in the noise.

And two other problems. The sensor wire is inside a sealed acrylic cube. So the ground floats when it is used in battery mode. And the sensitivity goes way up when it is tethered via USB. So my software cludge looks at the detect events and if they are way, way above the default threshold it assumes the Holocron is on USB and flips to the higher threshold setting. And I'm forcing auto-calibration at frequent intervals. And I'll probably write in a masking routing to prevent trips from coming too close together.

(That's more RTOS stuff there, of course. The Holocron is constantly feeding illumination level and color updates to the neo-pixels, meaning you have to use counters and/or interrupts instead of relying on delay() to tweak the timing.)

On to a new "Talk" animation, and take at least a weak swing at the user programming buttons. I've got the first six boards soldered up now and I have at least that many orders waiting to be filled. I'm glad I'm smart about this and have refused to accept payment until I'm ready to ship. (Because I still have to run out to the lasers to cut more pieces, too. At least the designing is finally done on that.)

Oh, and I just ran into the cutest hack on Hackaday. I'm already leveraging the fact that you can reboot the Holocron merely by tipping it far enough to activate the tilt sensor. But with a capacitor on an I/O pin, you can detect if the sleep interval was short or long. Meaning different behaviors depending on whether it has just been turned on, or if the user tips and restores.

And, yes, I was tempted to give up on the capacitive sensor and use this to trigger the sound effects on the "Talking" Holocron. But it made it a little too much like a Moo Can.

Saturday, November 19, 2016


It's cold out. Rainy also.

Good day to spend inside prop-making. Where I'm chasing down cold solder joints. Perhaps I need to scrub my PCB's before I start soldering on them. Or on the revised board (which I thought was complete until I thought of adding pins for a "talking" version), increase the annular rings on some of the critical pads.

No failure yet on any surface-mount component. But the hand soldering has thrown up two USB jack errors and even a couple of loose joints on the LEDs.

Oh, yeah. Talking. There's an Adafruit board that will trigger 10 consecutive (or random) sound files when a single pin is held low. Unfortunately they discontinued the version with an on-board power amp, which means I need to find space on the Holocron for two additional circuit boards. This, and even more ribbon cable, is so aesthetically displeasing I don't really feel like making this a standard option. After all, this is why I went through all the effort to make a single stand-alone board that combines charge management, USB hosting, and LED controller:

Also aesthetically displeasing is the sound. I experimented with the drivers I had lying around, and I needed to pump up to three watts into a quality driver before it could push its way out of the acrylic box and sound half-way decent. I've gone and ordered another of the surface mount transducers that failed me on the raygun project --

-- because anywhere else would create at the least a nasty shadow and possibly require a hole in the box as well. Besides, sound coming from a hole sounds like sound coming from a hole. It is a better effect if it sounds like the box itself is making the sound.

Pity I happen to know a little acoustics (and cabinet design). Because what this really calls for is a ported enclosure:

But that totally changes the look of the Holocron. And this is not a time to think outside the box. I've spent way too long refining on this particular box. It is time to brave the rain, visit the lasers and cut enough pieces to start shipping complete Holocron kits. (I have just enough to make one complete kit now, and I might assemble it myself just as a final check of the latest round of adjustments).

Or solder up the last of the current run of circuit boards. I stopped dead when I ran into odd USB behavior, but now I know what was going wrong and can fix it. I should probably solder up a complete "talking" Holocron before I order the version 1.1 boards, though. There's just barely space to put a couple more terminals for that...

(Oh, yeah; there's alternates. Best is go with Teensy and the Adafruit audio adaptor daughterboard for it. Skip USB hosting and in-place recharge and just put a string of Neopixels in for lighting. The Teensy does the heavy lifting of not just sound playback but DSP to equalize it. But that's costlier, still messy, takes up even more space, and requires I spend time programming.)

Bunny of the Week

The Great Pyramid of Cholula.

Under a 14th century Spanish Colonial church (a major pilgrimage destination) and covered with so much earth and other structures it looks like nothing more than a tall and regular hill lies a massive pyramid.

Begun somewhere around 200 BCE and built in stages over a thousand years, this elaborate pyramid complex is half a kilometer per side, larger in base and volume than the Great Pyramid of Giza, making it the largest monument in the world. Tunnels and passages wind through the structure; archaeologist have uncovered over six kilometers of passages so far. It is of course richly decorated, including fantastic murals, elaborate stone carving, and there are also multiple human burials.

And it is built on top of a cenote. Which, to add just that extra level of fantastic (something else I learned within the last couple of days) the distinctive cenote of Mexico's Yucutan Peninsula (deep circular pits where the surface has collapsed into massive limestone caves) are concentrated in a ring of shocked and fractured limestone that is itself a remnant of the Chicxulub Impact (the probable cause of the K-T extinction event of 68 MYA). These cenote are often connected in strings of caves, following the flows of an underlying aquifer which extends all the way to the sea.

Oh, yes, and just to put the Ancient Aliens firmly in the mix, an old name for the site is Acholollan (Nahuatl) meaning "place of flight." And, yes, the suggestion has been made that mysterious older inhabitants did just that. Perhaps their planet needed them.

So. Largely un-excavated (although quite well known and, like any ancient monument you've heard of, a major tourist destination), layered down through history from Spanish Colonization to late pre-contact to the height of the Mayan Empire to truly ancient caves to a catastrophe from tens of millions of years ago. Extending deep underground from the modern excavations to excavations by treasure hunters and seekers after building materials back through the Colonial age at least, to deep passages to natural tunnels to deep underground rivers stretching all the way to the sea.

And my only question is; why hasn't Lara Croft already been there to raid it?

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Powered by Brains

There has been a push since at least the Industrial Revolution to offload the rote work -- the repetitive, mindless tasks -- onto machinery. The Maker revolution dotes on this, and my personal props work has paralleled; moving to technologies that let me copy and paste details instead of sculpting them individually, using mills and other power tools to achieve desired surfaces instead of hand-smoothing them, etc.

The downside, though, of getting rid of as much of the mindless drudge work as possible, is you don't have mindless drudge work to do when you are tired, sick, it is hot and you just got off a long day's work, you only have an hour before you need to go off and do something else, etc.

I'm looking at a big task list for the Holocron orders right now. Sure, there's some sanding and patching, and some soldering. Those are mindless; I sanded the last one over a couple evenings while watching YouTube.

But before I can even tear into the stack of orders I need to fix a couple remaining issues. I need to do the next round of PCB corrections in Eagle CAD. I need to edit the new solution to the USB jack into the laser SVG's. I need to dial in the sensitivity on the sensor and write a couple of new functions into the software.

None of this is stuff I can do when sleepy or when my head is fuzzy or when I'm distracted. None of them can I do without several consecutive hours to look through the change orders, re-familiarize myself with the parts/functions/software/layers etc., and still have the time to take careful caliper measurements and run tests and otherwise make sure the work is being done accurately. I can't throw any of this at the wall in hopes it will stick. It requires a free day (or at least a free afternoon) with health and no major distractions.

I can't even make up the rest of the stack of version 1.0 PCBs. Because before I can get to the relatively mindless rote of soldering in the discrete components I have to delicately place the surface mount and run a reflow oven cycle. That takes the kind of steady hand that does not come after the fourth cup of coffee and in any case requires a free hour or more for setup and cleanup.

The line continues to move, of course. Code crunching is increasingly moving to automation now. PCB is automated (if you like the results, which I don't). But of course that merely amplifies the problem. Because then the work that needs to be done so the project can progress is the intense concentration of original insight and artistic thought.

And, yeah, you can (and I've been forced to, on more than one theatrical design contract) reach into your bucket of trite old ideas, recycled ideas, and stolen ideas. And the people around you will still coo and aw about how creative you are.

But it isn't as good and it really doesn't feel right. Every single lighting design I've done for theater has involved me spending at least two hours doing nothing but sitting in a chair in the auditorium staring at the set. My average is a week of back-burner, of thinking off and on about the show, making scribbles, re-reading the script, etc., until the idea finally comes.

Fortunately, that kind of necessary percolation does seem to be entirely compatible with being tired, sick, busy, hot, whatever. It just needs the world to spin a few times before the ideas are ready to take full form.

Saturday, November 5, 2016


I'm still mainlining history. It has steamrollered from something I picked up to make the long hours at work go a little quicker (listening to podcasts) to near obsession. I find myself going past the fiction section in both the book store and the used DVD's to find the documentaries and (perhaps increasingly) the historical epics.

I'm currently reading through an alternate-history take on events in the Byzantine Empire under Justinian (aka the Belisarius series), and I'm watching the edutainment program Young Indiana Jones. 

The latter has the usual edutainment conceit of every famous person you probably heard of in school showing up to take a moment to interact with the protagonist. You can see it coming; heck, I didn't even realize it was that kind of a series when a masked man in Arab dress rode up to the Giza complex on a bicycle (towards our stranded heroes) and I realized immediately this was going to be T.E. Lawrence. And I have to say that the show plays fast and loose with dates and ages and assorted other facts (Norman Rockwell meeting Picasso and Degas at the Lapin Agile in 1908? Really?)

But it is a fun show and it is always fun to see some of these places and people and cultures brought to life. The great thing about an interest in history is you recognize more and more of the references and the quotes, the places and the people.

The Belisarius series is also a whirlwind tour through places -- and through history. Belisarius comes from a culture that is obsessed with the classics. The Byzantine royalty are very familiar with the classics and, like the Roman Empire they consider themselves a continuation of, venerate the Greek writers of antiquity. They are also a trading empire. Many of the other cultures interacted with have a similar literary bent and long memories for their own histories -- the Persians, for but one example.

And many of the characters are military men, and it is still true that literate military men know the campaigns of Alexander and Xenophon as well as they know those of their contemporaries. (Plus it doesn't hurt that the alternate part of the alternate history is a future power struggle that has sent two emissaries back to support opposing sides -- and bring them up to date on histories that world has yet to experience).

And, yeah, I finally had to pick up an atlas and start really trying to nail things down in at least the region of the Mediterranean. I happened to find a rather nice "Atlas of the Ancient World" edition of National Geographic just as I was feeling the cartographic pinch. But truth be told, I've been using Google Maps to get a rough grounding in where things are in relation to each other.

I suppose I have always had a background fascination for the stuff. I think if you boil down the question of why I never threw myself into it like this before, it would be because of how I learn (which is a poor mismatch to how some subjects have traditionally been taught). I don't learn from the bottom up. I learn by putting together a basic structure, then filling in the details. It is like a holographic data structure, not like defined sectors on a disk that can simply be filled up one by one. I quite literally can not remember (and can not associate) facts before I have this overarching structure to plug them into.

The traditional presentation of history is long on the facts and short on the analysis. And nearly missing on the synopsis. So you are confronted with having to memorize tables of names of kings and dates of conquest, with no real sense of the "why" of anything.

The presentation of history is changing, I think. Although the more analytical stuff has always been out there. Think of Henri Pirenne's great History of Europe, which I am convinced is thanks to the Germans separating him from his books, forcing him to write the "real" stuff of history and go back later to fill in the dates. Or oral histories, which place you in a place and let you figure out what it all means the way the person living that life would have.

Then there was a time when I was working at Fort Mason Center, taking lunch under the bows of a W.W.II Liberty Ship and reading a book from the nearby Friends of the Library sale. It only seemed natural to read naval histories of the war, and given the theater the men, women, and materials that came through that base were being shipped to, the Pacific Campaigns.

Which I rapidly discovered were a heck of a lot more interesting from the Japanese point of view, which led me into reading a lot of history and ethnographies and other Japanese studies. I sort of walked backwards to an eventual appreciation of anime and samurai films; unlike most of my contemporaries, those were not my starting point.

Somewhere around there I got a fascination for female aviation pioneers, reading a bunch of biographies of same. And this was a better way to grasp history; from the ground, in a narrow field both in space and in time. The problem being of course you need a lot of these tiny, detailed chunks in order to build into an understanding of the grand flows.

When I started working on an SG1/Tomb Raider fanfic, it was planned to go no more than 20,000 words and be all about the humor in two adherents of the Indiana Jones school of archaeology (aka Daniel Jackson and Lara Croft) getting into an argument about the best way to loot then blow up an ancient temple.

It didn't work out that way. To figure out the plot I really needed to brush up on my history of the ancient world. And for some reason, this time it "stuck." I was able to push through that period of not being able to make sense of anything, hammer over and over at the various periods and kingdoms until it finally started to take form.

It isn't a breakthrough to all of history. I am still in fear of the 18th and 19th centuries -- heck, I'm not even looking forward to trying to get a grip on Rome (much less feudal Europe). But I am finding it a little easier.

So even though my podcast resources have temporarily run dry on my period of initial interest, I'm quite happy to listen to forty five minutes on the Siege of Munster or the Tea Trade.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Qualopec Solution

I've been stumped on my fanfic for far too long. Every time I thought I'd managed to clarify just what had happened in the past, it made it even more plain it didn't happen in New Mexico. Where I'd put my characters as of the previous chapter.

So back to primary sources. I watched all the Tomb Raider: Anniversary cutscenes. And oh my. Apparently the White Sands area was a seat of power for Qualopec. Complete with Mesoamerican-style pyramid, surrounded by (!!) what look like Olmec heads. Cripes.

So I'm going out on a Doylist limb here. These aren't flashbacks, after all; they are visions Lara is granted when she assembles the Atlantean Scion. So call them a little confused, the way visions are. Oh, and the opening scene? It's obviously wrong already -- there was only one atomic test in 1945, it wasn't at Los Alamos itself, and it most certainly did not include the buildings of a mock-up town getting blown down. But, hey, the cutscene starts in black and white anyhow. So call it a documentary, with some fudging of the facts for better dramatic impact. And Natla did not fly, burning, out of the crater whilst the mushroom cloud was still growing.

This is far too tempting a road to travel further and further, of course. I'm strongly leaning towards deciding that re the Stargate universe, nothing is canonical that hadn't been shown by the end of Season 4. So I don't have to stick with some of the really absurd stuff about Merlin, for instance.

One is further tempted to assume that everything you've seen about Lara's adventures actually comes out of one of the highly dramatized fan magazines (or ghost-written accounts, before she decided the publicity wasn't actually helping). So Atlantean script looks half-way like a reasonable language, and not like the crazy hodgepodge of cabalistic signs and ersatz hieroglyphics shown on screen during the game. And maybe it wasn't really a t. rex.  Ah, but that way lies madness.

Part of the fun of the fanfic game is sticking with what was actually in the original, and making an effort to explain it (or at least make it seem to make sense).

But when you get down to it, as fascinating as the question is of what the Ancients were up to prior to 2 MYA and after 10 KYA (the dates the show gives for their two sojourns on Earth), particularly their interaction with human (and homo neandertalis) migration, the neolithic revolution, etc., the schema I have for my story isn't going to allow any of the characters to actually figure it all out. It's going to be a mystery to them. It might as well be a mystery to the reader as well.

Trouble is, I do sort of have to know myself. Because I'm still trying to figure out what the hell Natla was trying to dig up in New Mexico (it can't have been the infamous UFO, despite this taking place not far from Roswell). Or why there's a History Channel group of pseudo-archaeologists there now with their video cameras. Or why Amanda was there, and why the heck she thinks Lara Croft would soon follow!

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Help me, Obi-Wan

I'm in the middle of filling those Holocron orders. I'm already sick of them...been sick of Holocrons for months now.

Oh, but while I was restocking parts at Adafruit (I'm dangerously low on some of the Holocron components already) I rediscovered a very cute little OGG-based sound board they have there. It's got flash built-in, is visible via USB as a standard mass storage device, and can be as easily triggered from a free microcomputer pin as it can be from buttons.

So I actually could make a Talking Holocron without that much more equipment. Since I've kind of overtasked the CPU of the current Holocircuit already, this would be a re-purpose of my previous Cree-based board (or the next generation Cree board...long discussion there about what is going to go on it, though.)

And it would also be a good excuse to test Cree lighting of a Holocron; now that I've incorporated the internal diffusor I previously thought was going to be too complicated to do...

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

We Have Liftoff

A dozen confirmed orders for Holocrons now. I'm now a full employee at the job I've been at for over a year, health bennies, company iPhone and all. And I've been playing Kerbal Space Program, which went on Steam sale the same day the 1.2 update was released.

On the latter, I've managed Kerbin orbit (using fairly minimal tech...mostly early solid-fuel boosters). And returned, which was trickier; I'd burned all my fuel reaching orbit but fortunately apokerb brushed the very fringes of atmosphere. After a few orbits my velocity had decayed enough for me to re-enter.

I think I've solved the majority of the mechanical problems in the Holocron. I do need to hop to it on a couple of software tweaks before I ship, however.

Oh, yeah. And work just sped up a little. We've got a couple of big orders and the parts for them just arrived today. As I'm fighting with a cold and sleeping 10 hours a night...but otherwise feel great, better than in months. Years even. I may have to park the car again and go back to walking to work...

Monday, October 24, 2016

Do I hafta draw youse a diagram?

Making a sketch really helps. If you can draw well enough (I can't) you can use it to communicate with a client or a co-worker.

When you are using it to figure out something, though, all it needs to be is clear enough so you can read it yourself.

I made a few dozen sketches of Holocron ideas before I finally found the idea I was able to take through Inkscape, laser, and assembly of a prototype:

I made hundreds of sketches, mostly by hand but to-scale with the aid of graph paper, on how the thing assembled. But technical work is not the only place where a sketch is nice to clarify your thoughts:

The above is actually the only plan I had to organize the big fight in the Abbington Estate a chapter or two back in my current fanfic. I can pretty much puzzle out what I meant now...I think the lower left is Zip up in Lara's room searching for her guns, center right is Teal'c hiding Alister and the injured Winston behind the Tiger painting in the Blake Room, with the Hall of Armor on the right fork of the passage, and of course at center is the Great Hall which serves as hub for every game that lets you explore the mansion, and the more spectacular moments of the fight in the (first) Tomb Raider movie.

And then there's this:

This is me trying to make any sort of sense of the Deep Time of the setting. The vertical axis more-or-less corresponds to time (logarithmically) and depth in the Earth (for some parts of the diagram). Essentially, the first Ancient culture was on Earth in the 2-200 MYA range, and among their other activities built Core Taps (essentially using a volcanic vent as a power source) -- many along the Ring of Fire.

Following the Wraith War (not to be confused with the Unknown Entity summoned up by Amanda's "Wraith Stone") a small number of Ancient survivors, now called Lanteans, come back to Earth. This is canonically at 10 KYA, which is problematic as the first Goa'uld (who later calls himself the Sun God, Ra) also canonically arrives on Earth about that time. One of them tinkers up the Asterion at Thera, built on top of the Core Tap there. If you look closely you might be able to make out a bull's head and a "clue" of thread in my scratchy diagram.

If I had the space, the diagram might have indicated things like the Elder Dryas, the first human migrations into the Americas, the Toba eruption, etc. There are a lot of odd things going on around that period! Canonically (according to the games this time), the surviving Lantean "triumvirate" on Earth breaks up, with Natla imprisoned in a stasis tube and Qualopec and Tihocan going off on solo careers as, eventually, mad old gods to early Central Americans and some sort of (possibly Mycenean) proto-greco-romans.

Roll forward to 3,000 BCE; Ra is overthrown, and the first historical Egyptian dynasties start up (no word on what the Assyrians or Sumerians thought about all this). Horus remains and is still wandering the Earth up through the Bronze Age collapse (witnessing the Thera eruption close-hand), at last getting stuck in a canopic jar sometime around the Amarna period of the Egyptian New Dynasty.

Some Lanteans may still be hanging around, whispering into Plato's ear (or perhaps Solon's). And to Iron Age "Celts," as well, giving rise to some of the Arthurian legend as well. Plus donating Excalibur, and continuing to use the Ring Transporter-like Travel Dias system established in various remote corners of the world (and possibly on others as well...wherever it is that some of the events of Tomb Raider: Underworld actually take place!) Others are off Earth, eventually either dying off or Ascending, but before that join for a time in a great league with the Asgard, the Nox, and the Furlings. The last have never been heard of since.

In 1945 the Trinity test frees Natla, who in due time seeks out and is successful in finding the three parts of the Atlantean Scion. Which is lost when another of the Ancient core taps blows up as did Thera, taking out Lost Island (which the games do not give a clear location for -- and as it is clearly either analog to or part of lost Atlantis, can be defensibly placed anywhere that amusingly mobile island-slash-continent has been placed by writers since Plato).

About this time the Stargate is being moved from Giza (having been uncovered in 1938), and Ernest Littlefield uses it in the post-war years. It is seen in a Federal storage facility outside of Washington in 1968, and finally fetches up at Cheyenne Mountain when Ernest's fiancé gets the program restarted. Of course we know what happens then!

And, no; not all of that is in the diagram. Mostly I have Lara, who has joined with unknown reason with psuedo-archaeologist Commander Newberry in his Landmaster-like "Ark III," (the diagram wrongly shows it with the funky tri-wheel arrangement) who may be stumbling on something Amanda left for them to find that may have something to do with the Ancient core taps that either Horus or Natla or the Asgard were investigating...

I think I've worked out my current plotting woes to the point where Amanda wrote a "Hello, Sweetie" message in some extremely obscure ancient tongue (possibly late-period Lantean) on the back of an artifact with equally obscure markings, which Newberry found and which attracted Lara to his dig in New Mexico. Amanda's message points towards Mount Shasta but also leads Lara into focus range of the Green Sun concentrator solar power plant -- which Natla Industries built, on properly previously leased by a wildcat drilling operation she blatantly named "Qualopec Oil Prospectors."

I did make one big mistake choosing Roswell as my starting point for the "Lara in the Midwest" chapters, though. White Sands, and most specifically the Trinity site, are a little too far away to properly explain whatever it was that Natla has been digging for in the Roswell area.

Saturday, October 22, 2016


I finished the Stolen B prototype today and opened up the thread at the RPF to start taking orders.

(Top image is the completed "Stolen B," including a prototype assembly of the final lighting diffusor, support structure, and circuit with USB jack. Bottom image is a mock-up using borrowed "Temple" shell and the lighting module from the "Stolen B" to show off the combination of "Guardian" diffusion and "Gallifrey" circuit layers.)

The above is also why I spent a few minutes today developing a BOM with parts numbers just so I could keep track of all the pieces properly. Here's the BOM for the design I've been showing off in earlier posts:

20.1 “Stolen A," assembled
0.1.31 “Stolen” shell set Top Side (3 pieces) USB Side Bottom
0.1.41 “Counselor” diffusion set Diffuse top Diffuse side (3 pieces) Diffuse side USB Diffuse bottom
0.1.51 “Circuit 2” set (6 pieces)
0.1.61 “Standard” diffusion cube set diffusion cube top diffusion cube side (4 pieces)
0.1.62 Support set support top support side (4 pieces)
0.1.71 “Revision 3” electronics package “Revision 2” neopixel board USB jack Standard LiPo Capsense wire Magnet (4 pieces)

Tomorrow I'll probably solder up another couple boards, and scrounge and adapt from my discards pile to complete the "Temple," "Stolen A," and "Imperial Archives" prototypes. I need two Holocron gifts so at least two of those are going away (I can't see those particular ones, as they don't quite meet my standards for shippable product.)

Yes...working at a company that makes precision audio equipment has tainted me. I think in terms of QA and Reliability Testing and BOMs and MAI's now. But I need to; despite my original intention of making the cheapest possible kit that was also as smooth and simple to assemble as I could make it, the realities of the core design elements of the "Stolen" fork has produced a design that has a lot of individual parts and requires a fair amount of finicky work to assemble.

Now all I need is to add a proper tracking system for revisions...

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Out with the old, on with the new...


Yesterday was productive. Checks have arrived, bounced back from sick (after getting even sicker, that is), I finally did the "Gallifrey" circuit design for the Holocron and drew up my big attempt at the "Guardian" diffusion layer. Old-school; worked with ink (and lots of opaque white) on a drafting board because working through a graphics program was constraining my choices in the wrong ways.

While I was shopping for a new technical pen to complete the above I got an idea how to make the Wraith Stone work.

I've been pondering for months various schemes of multiple castings or fills to get the green inclusions. Well, after seeing some "ebony" Rub n' buff at the art store, I finally made the paradigm shift to accept casting the whole thing in translucent green, painting out the rest of the model, and dealing with the less-than-perfect way paint will interact with the internal lighting.

And actually, if I go clear instead of translucent color (using the LEDs to provide the color) I may be able to omit a casting stage and use the printed model straight.

So, yeah, I'm all inspired on this one now. I also came around on the qualities of the raised edge; a hand-worked look and resulting variation of thickness is fine. So cut the basic form from MDF then build up the details in Apoxie Sculpt. It's going to be built at about 3-up, scanned, and then printed to the actual smaller scale so not that painful to get the details clean enough.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Bass Canards

Passed the worst of it. Money came into my Paypal. Then my late paycheck arrived. I put in a full day at work. And I mailed off the latest set of M40 grenades. I even got a little fiddle practice in.

One of the reasons I've been behind on the fiddle practice is I've been using my breaks to tinker with an acoustic experiment. I bet I could get it declared a "20 percenter." Considering we do, well, acoustic design at work. Or rather, the company does. I reload coffee machines.

So what I built was an experimental Cajon. These are drums made in the form of (and historically, from) wooden boxes. Because of the nature of the sounding surface (or tapa), there are a variety of different sounds that one can get from one, including a reasonable approximation of the basic kick-tom-snare setup.

I was cutting from scrap wood, so I used slightly smaller and non-standard dimensions. But what I really wanted to explore was the idea of porting.

See, the box itself functions as a Helmholz Resonator. Not the perfect spherical one, however. Like a guitar body, the acoustics are a complex blend of the air mass inside the volume of the cavity communicating with the outside through the tone hole and modified by the flexible materials making up the body itself. This is even more complex in a cajon as one side of the box is the drum head itself -- which has specific resonance modes itself (multiple modes, in fact, with different combinations of strength of the various nodes excited depending on where the surface is struck).

According to a university acoustics lab experiment I read, even though the 0,0 node of the tapa is around 110 Hz, there exists a second peak of acoustic energy of the cavity. They were studying how this is modified by changing the diameter of the tone hole.

Well, I thought I'd see if I could emphasize low frequencies by using a cabinet design trick; by porting the hole. Adding a tube extension essentially lowers the emphasized frequency. This, at least, can be readily calculated. I didn't bother, as I was making this from available scrap. Instead I simply experimented.

Adding the port instantly cut much of the supporting resonance in the 200-400 hz range. Which is where the strongest most characteristic strike tone had been. It brought in a new peak of strongly boosted frequencies centered at about 50 Hz for the tube length shown above. The wadding (which I added to before closing the box) was designed and effectively did muffle most of the original "box" tone, leaving almost nothing but the "slap" of hand on wood and a deep powerful thump much like that you'd get from a good kick drum.

Unfortunately another part of the experiment was not as successful. It did not seem possible to selectively reduce the damping (and the effect of the porting) to allow richer, more tom-like tones in other strike zones. Nor was I entirely happy with the "slap" of the loose edge I designed for a snare-like effect (too woody, although it did have a good slap. I can put more sizzle in by adding guitar string under it, but I'm afraid this might be audible in the "kick" as well).

If and when I get back to this (I saved a few other pieces of scrap wood) the next experiment is going to be making a bongo-cajon but using partial baffles instead of airtight partitioning. I'll see how the two air volumes communicate and interact.

A little more on-line research and I found some good technical discussion at a Cajon builder's forum. And, yes, the porting trick is well known -- there's a pair intersection between Cajon builders and speaker builders. There's also a style of Cajon playing (and building) that aims for a close approximation of kick-and-snare (and, somehow, hat). 

But I find I side with the larger community in that I miss the "wooden" tone of the classical Cajon. That is, the 200-400 Hz range which my ported and damped experiment specifically reduced. However, based on a slightly better understanding of the underlying math (one day I'll get around to reading the rest of that book I have on musical acoustics) I've decided to pre-calculate the dimensions (particularly the critical sound hole dimension) of the planned Bongo Cajon.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016


Come out into the sunlight; it's just beyond the rain
come walk with me in daylight, and leave behind the pain
in the darkest of the night, there is still a light, it's coming with the day --
so leave behind your midnight; today's a brand-new day

A while ago I was working on a mock-up soundtrack to an imaginary B-movie. Above is meant as the English translation of the Cantonese lyrics of the obligatory up-beat canto-pop end titles track.

I've been pushing for a while to get the Holocrons ready to sell. One of the side effects was putting in shorter hours at work -- whilst simultaneously spending money on materials and other related Holocron costs. This caught up bad this week, leaving me too short to even get groceries.

I just caught a nasty bug (feels like one of those nasty three-day flu's that put you flat on your back for two of those days). Got bad enough I had to go home early today and may need to take tomorrow off as well. Which is really awful timing as we've got a couple big orders coming in at work and this is only my second week as full employee. Looks bad, is what I'm saying.

My paycheck didn't show up today, either. Only thing that did show up was a notice from my landlord that he's going to pop a surprise inspection on everyone tomorrow. Yeah, tomorrow -- with the place littered from trying to complete those dratted holocrons while starting a full-time job with a new level of responsibility and being too broke to afford even paper towels and when I'm so sick I can barely stand up (fat chance of doing some whirlwind cleaning tonight!)

So, yeah, this is a low. Even more irritating in that my newer and bigger paychecks start arriving on Friday, I'll be able to afford the car repairs by the weekend, I just rented out some audio gear for the equivalent of two weeks at my old pay rate, and I have over a dozen people posting the "Take my money, dammit" gif for completed holocrons (and doesn't hurt at all that I have already purchased the material for a half-dozen of them).

So I just need to get through a few more days...

Friday, October 7, 2016

I saw a pocket watch

That pretty much sums up the current direction of Fusion360.

Fusion is a great ap, and the new pricing schedule is actually affordable. But it does have it's peccadilloes. Chief among them being that it is being revised and revamped so frequently there are no current manuals or online help sources or other instructions that actually apply to the real program (they all reference buttons, functions, or entire modes of employ that got taken out several program versions ago).

This updating is, also, forced. On at least three occasions I've had a deadline -- I had to finish a model and I only had a few hours to do so -- but Fusion360 (unlike every other, intelligent, application) makes updates mandatory. Stop work and wait for their extremely slow server (two hours wait to download the latest update, not infrequently). No, you can't work in the background. No, you can't put it off. No, you can't even "fool" it by turning off wifi -- because Fusion360 is so damned cloud-minded all of your data files become inaccessible when you go offline. No matter where you try to force their storage.

So the latest update pushed through (along with the ominous warning that the next update will require an OS update, forcing me to use an OS with known and serious flaws), and it took even longer to start working. The side panel where all of my files are accessed stayed blank for a frighteningly long time, and when I hovered the mouse over it.......

....I got a watch face.

Anyone who knows anything about the Mac OS flees in terror at this point. You should NEVER be that deep into legacy cruft where you see the watch face. It basically means some programmer screwed up bad.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Holocron history

This prop took forever. But there is reason for it. Basically, it isn't "a" prop. There wasn't a straight-forward design process from a base idea through a directed iterative exploration.

I was handed a kit to assemble and paint. I'd just been introduced to laser cutting and engraving, though, and I thought I could pimp it up a little.

The experiments worked. Well enough I ended up documenting the project for Instructables. And that's where the trouble started.

Enough people at Instructables showed an interest that I made my files available. Since some of the parts weren't originally mine, I had to come up with designs for those, as well.

It was through Instructables that I was contacted by the master of a Jedi Temple, wanting a custom design made for his students. I agreed to work on it. Many emails and iterations and a full free kit shipped out no charge and I stopped being able to shake the feeling that he wasn't actually going to be good for the cost of the final kits. So I parted ways with that customer.

Since I now had a new and tested shell design I tried for a while to generate a new holocron based around it. But I didn't like (and still don't like) and of the results.

The holocron does not yet appear in any movie. It appears in some games and animations; one appearance being the best documented appearance I've been able to find. This natural goal was blocked, however, by the seeming impossibility of achieving it with the materials at hand. So I continued tinkering with other alternate designs, trying to fold in various motifs from the Star Wars universe.

It was at that juncture that I opened an interest thread at the Replica Props Forum. I got strong interest there, but still couldn't satisfy myself with the design.

Took a break to work on other projects. Did the Retro Raygun, some other things. My Croft necklace was also a hit, and I gave it away on long-term loan, which led me to starting the Wraith Stone project, and that looked to require some advanced electronics, so I picked up the holocron project again just to be able to work out the charge circuit and load sharing and surface-mount issues on a simpler board than what I intended for the Wraith Stone.

And when I returned to the holocron, what I had seen as an unsolvable problem turned out to be trivial. The critical insight might have been a function introduced on the new lasers just installed at TechShop; vector engraving. In any case, I immediately moved to front position a design much more closely based on that one animation.

It is just different enough from my first holocron, though, that the lighting didn't look right anymore. So back to some very basic development to rethink how the lighting circuit interacts.

And, of course, late in the day I realized there were possible ways to get it to look even more like my selected source. The very first holocron was a three-layer model; painted shell, solid diffusion layer, then the vector-cut "circuit" layer. I finally broke through this paradigm -- first through having to add a diffusor cube, then through realizing an inner "hypercube" might be an even closer match to what was seen on screen.

And that's where I am right now; cutting out yet more test pieces to see if this idea works out, while my growing list of confirmed customers are demanding I let them give me money...

Which is of course the absolutely perfect time for a major change at my day job.